Commentary Magazine


Topic: isolationism

The Anti-Rand Paul GOP Primary

The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

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The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

That’s the upshot of a pair of dueling op-ed articles published this week in which Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul laid out their respective positions on foreign policy. Perry pulled no punches in an article published in the Washington Post last Friday as he labeled Paul an “isolationist.” Perry rightly pointed out that the positions Paul advocates would weaken America’s defense and standing around the world even more than President Obama’s disastrous policies, especially as a terrorist threat becomes more pronounced in the Middle East.

Paul argued in a response published yesterday in Politico that he was a realist, not an isolationist. But he gave away the game by claiming the difference between them was about his unwillingness to order Americans into Iraq, a signal that he intends to stick to a stance in which the use of U.S. power, as well as its exercise of influence, would be shelved in a Paul presidency.

Paul’s advantage here is that he is the unchallenged spokesman for the growing isolationist spirit within the GOP and the nation. He has inherited his father’s extreme libertarian base and expanded with a slick appeal rooted in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness. That gives him a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters and accounts for the fact that early polls show him with a slim plurality in a large field of potential candidates.

But it doesn’t guarantee Paul the nomination. To the contrary, though Paul is a formidable contender, there’s no reason to believe that the party that has championed strong defense and foreign policies for generations is morphing into the sort of organization where an extremist like Ron Paul, or even his son, who espouse foreign-policy views that are arguably to the left of Obama, speaks for the majority.

But Paul could succeed if the candidates who espouse mainstream GOP views on foreign policy siphon support from each other and allow him to slip through to victory. That’s why the fiercest fight in the upcoming campaign will not be between Paul and those who disagree with him but in the virtual primary as Republican foreign-policy hawks seek to claim the mantle as the anti-Paul candidate.

This will be especially important because although most voters will always be more concerned about the economy and domestic issues, the differences between the candidates on most of the other issues will be minimal. As things stack up now, other than immigration reform, foreign policy may be the only point on which there are significant differences among the Republicans.

Who will be competing in the anti-Paul primary?

The first name that comes to mind is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s decision to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage made it clear that he’s still interested in running for president despite his ongoing Bridgegate troubles. And he fired a shot across Paul’s bow last year on the question of intelligence gathering that indicated a willingness to stake out ground to the libertarian’s right on defense policy. But Christie is still regarded by many in the grass roots as a moderate who will have problems drawing support from a party that has shifted to the right. More to the point, his expertise on foreign affairs appears to be minimal. While no one should underestimate Christie in a fight, this is not a man who is likely to gain any advantages by speaking about non-domestic or economic issues.

The other principal contender for the title of anti-Paul is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has spent the last year giving speeches on foreign affairs and has the chops to make a strong case for himself as the most able spokesman of his generation for a strong American foreign policy. Based on his statements, Rubio is a clear choice to be the leading advocate for a strong America in his generation. But the jury is still out on whether Rubio can overcome a poor 2013 in which conservatives attacked him on immigration and Paul and Ted Cruz won the affection of the Tea Party (a group that once regarded him as a favorite).

There are others who would like use foreign policy to emerge from the pack of GOP candidates. Outliers like former ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King want to run on foreign policy but neither seems capable anything more than a symbolic candidacy. 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum has the expertise learned during years in the Senate and would give Paul a run for his money by articulating the case for stopping Iran and not allowing Islamists or the Russians to run the U.S. out of the Middle East. But while it would be foolish to underestimate Santorum (as I and just about everyone else did in 2012), he still looks right now to be a second-tier candidate until the contrary is proven.

There is also the possibility that someone else, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will emerge as a rival to Paul. But Walker must first win reelection and then must articulate some strong positions on foreign policy, something that so far he has not done.

It is into that confusing array of contenders that Perry is seeking to inject himself. Perry’s disastrous 2012 run would have seemed to eliminate him from future consideration but after his very good week showing up Barack Obama on illegal immigration, the Texas governor seems to be a much more serious contender now than he did only a few weeks ago.

Perry doesn’t know as much about foreign policy as Rubio, Santorum, Bolton, or King and anyone who remembers his debate performances the last time around must regard his 2016 hopes as a long shot at best. But in contrast to his late start last time around, Perry is going in hard this time and seems better prepared. Moreover, by seeking to establish himself as the heir to the Reagan wing of the GOP (as opposed to Paul’s seeming effort to channel the spirit of Robert A. Taft, the isolationist champion of the 1940s), Perry has correctly targeted an issue that could give him a leg up in a battle that is only just starting.

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Paul’s Isolationism Isn’t a Viable Alternative

In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

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In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

That’s the conceit of Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which he joins the pile-on against both Bush and Obama. According to Paul, the main lesson to be derived from recent developments in Iraq is that anyone connected to or supportive of the original invasion as well as those who support the president’s disastrous retreat from the region need to admit their errors and cease advocating for what he considers to be failed policies. Fair enough. But once everyone who was for the war and also those who urged withdrawal say they’re sorry, what does the man who must be considered one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 think the U.S. should do in Iraq now? The answer is apparently, not much. Paul seems to be skeptical about any action to try and push back against the ISIS advance, a position that may be wrong but is not irrational. Not unreasonably, he also believes any presidential decisions should seek authorization from Congress for any new initiative.

What is not reasonable is the context of Paul’s position. Though he continues to insist that what he is proposing is analogous to the policies carried out by Ronald Reagan, having opposed virtually every U.S. initiative in the Middle East, it is hard to see his proposal as anything but a prescription for U.S. abandonment of both its interests and allies in the Middle East. This may have some superficial appeal to war-weary Americans who have grown tired of dealing with the region’s problems. But doing so will neither enhance the nation’s security nor allow it to ignore the threats that regularly emerge to challenge it.

Paul’s harping on the idea of others admitting their mistakes is a not-so-subtle way of asserting that he has made none. It is true that he bears no responsibility for getting the U.S. into Iraq or for President Obama’s bungling of a war that the administration claimed had been successfully concluded in his first term. But to claim that simply staying out of Iraq would have avoided all the problems of a rising Islamist tide in the region is to miss the point of the events of the last few years. By passing on an early intervention in Syria that might have toppled the Assad regime and avoided having the country fall into the hands of Islamists, President Obama set in motion a chain of events that has not only left the country in ruins, created more than a million refugees, and left more than 100,000 dead. He also helped create the circumstances that have fueled the chaos in Iraq. In doing so, Obama was doing just as a President Paul would do, only with the pretense that he was actually in control of events as his “lead from behind” mantra tried to indicate.

It is one thing to advocate for the U.S. to adopt a Reaganesque stance of only using force when U.S. interests are directly threatened, as Paul counsels. But Paul’s consistent position is always for the U.S. to stay out of the fight against Islamist terrorists, no matter where they are or what they are doing. He opposes drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and even U.S. aid to regional allies like Israel as well as less friendly and stable countries. Though he couches his position in “realist” terms that evoke Republicans of the past, a Rand Paul foreign policy would signal a retreat from the defense of the U.S. interests that Ronald Reagan would never have countenanced. Far from being an alternative to the follies of both the last two presidents, Paul would take U.S. foreign policy far to the left of what most Republicans already rightly think is Obama’s retreat from the world stage.

There is clearly no appetite in the country now for a new commitment to ground combat in Iraq, but Paul’s isolationism represents a dangerous extension of Obama’s cut-and-run philosophy. Though foreign policy will always take a back seat to domestic concerns, as Republicans begin to think seriously about 2016 they need to start thinking about whether they really want a presidential candidate who wants to abandon America’s interests and allies even more than Obama has done.

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Boko Haram and the Liberal Elites

Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

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Some on the right are mocking the Twitter offensive being conducted by the administration and the liberal and Hollywood elite against the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted 300 Nigerian girls from a school and then boasted this week that they would sell them into slavery. While everyone agrees that the mass kidnapping and the effort to stop girls from being educated is outrageous, some people think there’s something slightly absurd about the fact that it seems as if the principal response of the West to this latest instance of Islamist depredations is to tweet about it. They’re right about that.

Let’s specify that making fun of the first lady for joining in the chorus of #bringbackourgirls tweets is both mean-spirited and beside the point. It is to the credit of Mrs. Obama that she would attempt to use her enormous international prestige to help dramatize the plight of the girls and add further force to the anger about the crime. Neither she nor any of the Hollywood stars that are use their Twitter accounts to put themselves on the side of those seeking to undo this injustice have anything to apologize about. Considering that all too many of this same group often devote their public utterances to inconsequential affairs or, worse, peddling the conventional wisdom about issues in the form of liberal platitudes, none of them can do much about Boko Harm other than stating their opposition–and good for them for doing so.

But once we’ve defended the backlash of outrage on Twitter, it is time to admit that Rush Limbaugh may have had a point when he noted last week that some of those who have done their bit for the abducted girls on Twitter may be under the delusion that doing so actually constitutes something important or even a tangible response to the crime. Much like the isolationists who must now explain why they think it is appropriate for the U.S. to try to do something about the 300 girls but still advocate a retreat from engagement in the war against Islamist terror, liberals must examine the disconnect between their outrage and the weak foreign policy of the Obama administration that they have cheered.

Is it too much to ask that anyone who is angry about Boko Haram needs to understand that getting the girls back or helping the millions of other men, women, and children threatened by Islamist terror requires more than a hashtag and a selfie? Though the left still mocks neoconservatives as “warmongers,” do those flocking to Twitter really think anything short of force will rescue the girls, if indeed that is still possible after both the Nigerian government and the rest of the world has dithered about their fate in recent weeks?

Social media is an effective marketing and informational tool but terrorists are defeated by force, not sternly worded tweets. We’d all like to believe, as the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof does, that education would defeat Boko Haram in the long run. But an administration that waited years before designated this al-Qaeda affiliate as a terrorist group, and whose “lead from behind” tactics created the power vacuum in Libya that led to it being armed, cannot evade some of the responsibility for the fact that it now operates with apparent impunity.

Like it or not, the West is locked in a long war with Islamist terror. Retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan won’t end it. Nor will détente with Iran or pressure on Israel. It will require patience that democracies often lack and a willingness to maintain both vigilance and an aggressive policy that keeps America engaged even when we’d rather stay at home and tend our own gardens. But most of all it will require Americans, both the ordinary person in the street as well as the Hollywood elite, to understand that incidents like the Boko Haram abduction can’t be isolated from a conflict they would rather forget or pretend was merely a function of Bush administration policy.

So tweet about the girls all you want, Hollywood. But while you’re tweeting about the girls in between attending fundraisers for the president who has weakened our ability to influence events abroad, just remember that if you really want to help the girls and the countless other potential victims of Islamist terror, you need to also support a strong America and the use of force to defend the values we all believe in.

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Boko Haram and the Isolationists

When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

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When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

The story of the abducted girls of Nigeria seized our attention because of the enormity of this crime, the brazen nature of the criminals who openly brag of their “right” to kidnap and abuse girls, and, as our Michael Rubin aptly pointed out yesterday, the religious motivation behind their crime. It is also a neatly contained sort of tale that allows television news to do what it does best: pull on our heartstrings with a human-interest story. After all, Americans weren’t particularly bothered by Boko Haram’s reign of terror in part of Nigeria that had taken the lives of thousands of people, including children before this week. But since this lurid crime is more easily understood than Boko Haram’s previous depredations or the complexities of the Syrian civil war, everyone, including those who are generally opposed to any sort of U.S. involvement in foreign squabbles, is prepared to use the full power of the Pentagon to save these children.

This tells us a lot about how easily manipulated we are by images but it also ought to make us think twice of the implications of a rising tide of isolationist spirit that has influenced American decision making in recent years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the public of its appetite for foreign adventures, especially in the Middle East.

But let’s say that we accept, even though we shouldn’t, President Obama’s cowardly excuses that he is doing the best he can and that after prevaricating for so long on Syria, there’s nothing that can be done now. Let’s pose another not entirely hypothetical question: What will be the American public’s attitude if, in the coming years after the last American troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps to victory and returns to power in Kabul in an orgy not just of murder but of rape in which women and girls are once again the particular objects of their hostility? If Afghan girls are once again being imprisoned in their homes or sold into slavery, will the same people who are today calling out the Marines on behalf of the Nigerian kidnapping victims be crying out for America not to stand by in silence? Don’t bet on it.

Perhaps it is too much to ask people to be consistent. But the isolationists who want no part of the global war being waged on the West by Islamist terrorists need to remember that the consequences of our indifference to their crimes are serious. The U.S. may not be able to solve every problem in the world or be its policeman. Yet neither can we pretend that the horrors perpetrated by these Islamists have nothing to do with us. Anyone expressing outrage about Nigeria should remember that the U.S. has made a conscious decision to ignore crimes just as bad in Syria and have set in motion a train of events that may lead to even worse in Afghanistan.

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Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

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Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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Isolationism on Syria Breeds Terror

Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

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Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

Perhaps he thinks we should simply exit the entire region, not just Syria. Well, President Obama appears to be trying to do just that and the result is not peace and stability breaking out–it is more violence which already threatens American interests in the region and which could easily someday threaten America’s physical security.

We shouldn’t wait until the first Syrian-trained suicide bombers show up in London or New York; we should act now (indeed, we should have been acting for the past two years) to bolster the more moderate opposition elements who are even now battling al-Qaeda militants for control of the parts of Syria that are outside the government’s grasp.

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Isolationism and a Nuclear Iran

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

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Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Let’s first agree that diplomacy with Iran is a doubtful bet no matter whether it is being conducted by tough-minded leaders or weak ones. Both Obama and Kerry have little appreciation of the nature or goals of the Iranian regime and what little common sense they have is dwarfed by their hubristic belief in their own diplomatic prowess. As Will states, a deal that leaves in place Iran’s nuclear facilities and its stockpile of enriched uranium, and even grants it the right to create more is a formula for failure. It’s difficult to imagine any such scheme will not be either evaded or violated by the Iranians in a push to get the weapon their leaders have always dreamed of. The Iranians have spent the last 20 years deceiving and stalling Western negotiators. Any thought that the selection of a faux moderate in their fake presidential election presages a genuine shift on the part of the true rulers of Iran is a product of wishful thinking.

But however dubious we should be about Iran’s intentions, it is simply not true to claim, as Will does, that “any agreement” would be as futile as the one Obama has foolishly embraced. A deal that dismantled Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear plants and that resulted in the export of their uranium stockpile would be one that would prevent them from getting a bomb. Granted, the Iranians may well have more facilities than the ones under discussion. Intelligence agencies take it as a given that there are secret facilities where unknown nuclear activities are being conducted. Yet a negotiated end to the international sanctions on Iran that produced a genuine and strict inspection of the country might well root out most of the ayatollahs’ nuclear toys or at least enough to severely restrict their ability to reconstitute their program.

Such a deal might be possible if, rather than weakening sanctions in a vain effort to encourage Iranian moderates, the West tightened the economic restrictions on trade with Tehran and instituted a comprehensive embargo of Iranian oil. That kind of an embargo would be tough to enforce without the full support of Russia and China. But we’ll never know whether it could work or if such crippling sanctions would bring the regime to its knees until it is tried.

As for the use of force, Will is probably right that Israel may not be able to stop Iran on its own. It is also true that even a far more comprehensive strike by the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily end the threat for all time. But in dismissing the possibility that a series of strikes could stop Iran in the long run, Will is ignoring the fact that it is highly unlikely that a country already nearing bankruptcy could afford the massive costs involved in reconstituting a nuclear program it took them decades to build. There is no reason to believe that Iran could simply rebuild everything in a few years. And even if strikes did merely put off an Iranian bomb for a few years or a decade, that would buy the world badly needed time to prepare for the Iranian threat. It would also give the Iranian people an opportunity to perhaps unseat a tyrannical regime.

An armed conflict with Iran is not a scenario anyone should regard as anything but a last resort. But the assumption that it would be worse than a nuclear Iran is the real fallacy here. Will agrees with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack that the only choices the West has are containment or war and thinks the former a better idea than the latter. That’s why, despite his criticism of Obama’s diplomacy, Will likes the nuclear deal with Iran because he rightly believes it forestalls any use of force whether by Israel or the United States.

Will castigates those who call for a more vigorous response to the Iranian nuclear threat as being “gripped by Thirties envy” because they decry the Obama policy as a new appeasement. Obviously, the circumstances before us today are different than those faced by the West in 1938 when appeasement of Nazi Germany was on the table. But the notion that all that is at stake here is, as Will says, an attempt to  “alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders” is utterly misguided.

Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a domestic policy choice that the West regards with distaste (which was the way many in Britain and the U.S. regarded the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s), but a genuine threat to the stability of the regime and the security of the West. After all, the Iranians are not building ICBMs to hit Israel, whose existence would be placed in mortal danger by a bomb in the hands of an anti-Semitic regime pledged to its destruction. Those would be aimed at Europe and the United States. Such a weapon would also provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries in the region and allies such as Syria.

In this respect, Barack Obama’s understanding of the stakes in this question is greater than that of the venerable conservative sage. The president knows that a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe. He just lacks the will or the smarts to pursue the right policy to prevent it. Will is wrong to write off tough sanctions and diplomacy without their being tried. He’s even more wrong to think the use of force would be worse than a nuclear Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could not be neatly contained. Not could the U.S. or Israel be sure it could deter it with nuclear or conventional counter-attacks. But unlike liberals who labor under the delusion that the Iranians could be charmed out of their nukes, Will seems to think the issue doesn’t really matter. In making that case, he seems to be endorsing the mindset of isolationists like Rand Paul or trying to resurrect the foreign policy of Republicans of a bygone era like Robert Taft would have preferred. As such, his appeal for acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a distressing indication of the collapse of the consensus on the right about foreign policy that can only give comfort to America’s foes.

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Veterans and the Price of Isolationism

If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

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If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

Over the course of the last 95 years since the first Armistice Day—which we now call by a different name—Americans have had a schizophrenic relationship with our military and the foreign policies that employed it. We have careened between a missionary impulse that saw us sending our armed forces around the globe in defense of our values and security and the flip side of the same coin in which a battle-fatigued nation sought to find comfort in ignoring foreign conflicts even when that brings danger closer to our shores. While our leaders have sometimes erred by fighting in places where wars might have been avoided, such as Vietnam or Iraq, the inclination to overreact to the cost of those fights has often proved just as costly. We did not honor the veterans of World War One by being unprepared for World War Two. Nor did we honor the bloody and unappreciated sacrifices of Americans in Vietnam by slumbering into the 21st century when the challenge of Islamist terrorists brought war to our doorsteps on 9/11. Today many Americans are sick of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and wish again to “come home” and let the rest of the world shift for itself by pretending that threats from Iran and its terror network can be appeased. But the cost of that folly will be paid not by failed politicians and diplomats but by U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who will once again be asked to step into the breach.

Honoring our veterans must also mean protecting the security that generations of American warriors have bought with their blood. Just as Americans must vow today to, as Abraham Lincoln said in the waning days of the Civil War, “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and orphan,” so, too, must we ensure that the policies our nation pursues must not foment future conflicts through lack of vigilance and foolish faith that evil can be ignored or bought off. Today is the day to remember those who served and to also keep in mind that feckless leaders sow the wind while it is the veterans who reap the whirlwind of war.

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A Leadership Vacuum? Obama Created It

President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

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President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today contained much of the usual boilerplate material we’ve come to expect from any American president. The laundry list of international issues touched upon was voluminous. We learned that the president is almost as concerned about the situation in Mali as he is the Middle East peace process. He favors human rights whenever possible (no, we’re not cutting off ties with Egypt’s military government and rightly so) and would like very much to have some sort of diplomatic process with Iran so as to avoid having to keep his promise to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There was much in the address that was commendable and some points that were risible, especially his insistence that diplomacy with Iran must be given a chance–as if more than a decade of futile efforts that have been used by Tehran to buy more time for their nuclear program had never happened. But one got the feeling that the most important audience for this speech was not so much at the world body but Congress and the American people. After Benghazi, the missteps in Egypt, the flubbed Syria crisis, and with every indication that he is about to punt on the imperative to stop Iran, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that the president has a coherent foreign policy that can be defended. But lost in the middle of his lengthy oration, Obama did at least try to come to grips with one of the core issues being debated in the country now: isolationism.

The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.

Obama is largely right on both counts. But one of the main reasons why the spirit of isolationism is posing such a threat to a strong American foreign policy is five years of uninspiring leadership and administration failures that have made Rand Paul’s point of view look like a rational alternative.

Faced with a president who is committed to avoiding confrontation with the nation’s foes and rivals while also eager to use executive power to spy and employ drone attacks, it’s not hard to understand why so many Americans have grown weary and cynical about the need to engage with the world. Part of that was the fruit of the Bush administration’s unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having run for office declaring his lack of interest in fighting terror or in promoting democracy abroad, it is difficult for this president to turn around and explain to the American people why the hated neo-cons were basically right to speak about American exceptionalism and the necessity for the U.S. to act on behalf of human rights.

If there is a potential leadership vacuum in the world it is the one that Barack Obama created with the incoherent zigzag course on which he has steered the country from crisis to crisis. After claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq that Bush had largely won by the time he left office, insulting allies like Israel and the Czech Republic, leading from behind in Libya, angering both the Islamists and the military in Egypt, and not leading at all on Syria and Iran, does Obama wonder why Americans think the government can’t be trusted to act abroad?

There is no doubt that the isolationist caucus in the Senate and House is gaining supporters on both sides of the aisle. But that is due as much to Barack Obama’s inability to make a case for a strong American foreign policy and to sustain it with action as it is to the ability of people like Rand Paul to call into question the need for the nation to remain engaged in the great struggle against Islamist terror and other totalitarian threats to freedom. But it is hard for the man who just got played like a piano by Vladimir Putin and seems ready to lie down for Hassan Rouhani’s fake charm offensive to issue a call to engage with the world that anyone can take seriously.

Rather than talking to his beloved U.N. about the need for a strong America in an address that was characteristically laced with caveats about grievances with the U.S. being justified, he should be telling this to Congress. Even better, perhaps he should give the same pep talk to himself the next time he feels himself about to punt on yet another foreign crisis.

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Rand Paul’s Growing Burden: Dear Old Dad

Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

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Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

Last month, I compared Rand’s situation to that of Barack Obama’s problem with his longtime pastor and mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That brought a ferocious response from some Paulbots who bristle at any comparison between the America-hating Wright and the longtime libertarian standard-bearer. But, in fact, the comparison of the pair’s radical views on foreign policy is quite apt.

Isolationism is a growing trend within the GOP as some Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks have now shifted their attention from tax and spending issues to opposition to intervention in Syria. But there is a big difference between the impulse to stay out of foreign entanglements and Paul’s view that America had it coming on 9/11. A generation ago, Republicans cheered when Jeanne Kirkpatrick lambasted Democrats for being the party of those that “blame America first” in every controversy. Though the GOP has changed since then, patriotism and revulsion against Islamist terrorists who do hate American freedom has not gone out of style among Republicans.

It is almost impossible to imagine Ron Paul ever shutting up, as Wright did once his congregant began running for president. Nor will the press give Paul the same sort of pass for this association that the liberal mainstream media gave Obama about Wright. Nor should it. But even Obama realized that he had to start distancing himself from Wright’s positions and did so, albeit in such an artful way that he wound up getting credit for the episode rather than having to account for sitting in the pews for 20 years and listening approvingly to hateful sermons.

The same questions apply to Rand Paul’s tacit approval for his father’s statements and associations with racist and anti-Semitic publications and groups. Ron Paul was never really damaged by these issues because he was always a marginal presidential candidate, albeit one with a dedicated and noisy following. If Rand wants to truly go mainstream, his father’s baggage is going to have to be jettisoned.

Doubletalk may suffice for now, but as we get closer to 2016, the questions will get sharper and the danger that his father’s big mouth represents to his presidential hopes will only get worse. Anyone who is serious about being president will have to make a choice about this sort of problem. Given the close ties between father and son, this won’t be easy for Rand. But if he really wants to be the GOP nominee, he’s going to have to be more forthright about what he thinks about his father’s views.

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More Than Memorials Needed on 9/11

The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was commemorated with solemn ceremonies throughout the nation with special focus on those in New York and Washington. Names of the victims were read aloud. Tears were shed. Speeches were made. Eventually all the permanent memorials, including the long-delayed one at Ground Zero in New York, will be finished which will enable us to go on with these ceremonies that will continue to pull at the heart strings of those who attend them. But as appropriate as all this may be, it must be acknowledged that not only is not enough, but that it is also at times too much of the wrong thing.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of such memorials which pay proper homage to the victims of the attacks and to those who bravely and tirelessly sought to aid the victims, recover the bodies, and heal the damage done by al-Qaeda’s assault on America. But after 12 years it is clear that too much of our focus is on the emotions the memory of that terrible day evokes and not enough on the hard conclusions that still need to be drawn from what was but one chapter, albeit the most painful, in the war being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists. The willingness of all too many Americans, including many of those in law enforcement and government, to increasingly adopt a September 10th mentality about vigilance about terrorism makes a mockery of these memorials. So, too, does the fact the al-Qaeda-connected terrorists who killed four Americans in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 are still walking around free.

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The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was commemorated with solemn ceremonies throughout the nation with special focus on those in New York and Washington. Names of the victims were read aloud. Tears were shed. Speeches were made. Eventually all the permanent memorials, including the long-delayed one at Ground Zero in New York, will be finished which will enable us to go on with these ceremonies that will continue to pull at the heart strings of those who attend them. But as appropriate as all this may be, it must be acknowledged that not only is not enough, but that it is also at times too much of the wrong thing.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of such memorials which pay proper homage to the victims of the attacks and to those who bravely and tirelessly sought to aid the victims, recover the bodies, and heal the damage done by al-Qaeda’s assault on America. But after 12 years it is clear that too much of our focus is on the emotions the memory of that terrible day evokes and not enough on the hard conclusions that still need to be drawn from what was but one chapter, albeit the most painful, in the war being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists. The willingness of all too many Americans, including many of those in law enforcement and government, to increasingly adopt a September 10th mentality about vigilance about terrorism makes a mockery of these memorials. So, too, does the fact the al-Qaeda-connected terrorists who killed four Americans in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 are still walking around free.

The nature of the debate earlier this year over the activities of the National Security Agency in monitoring and intercepting messages going to and from foreign addresses and emails potentially related to sources of terror demonstrated just how far we’ve come in 12 years. While concern over possible invasions of privacy is not unreasonable, the level of cynicism about government was only made possible by a sense on the part of many on both the left and the right that the war with al-Qaeda is as much in our past as the one on Nazism or Japanese imperialism. This mentality is the result not only of America’s successes in preventing a repeat of 9/11 but a desire to forget about the threat that Islamist ideology poses to the West and to our collective security. The same problem applies to the attempts by many in the press and other liberal critics of pro-active counter-terrorism policy to hamstring the efforts of the New York Police Department from conducting surveillance of Islamists and their gathering places.

While all pay lip service to the 9/11 tragedy, a belief that any focus on those who inspire and commit such atrocities, whether from abroad or homegrown, is an offense to Islam has replaced the zeal to protect the nation that was universally shared in the months and years after the attack. Partly inspired by the myth of an anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 that remains entrenched in the minds of much of the media, what we have now is a powerful anti-anti-terror mentality that interprets any attention to radical Islam as an act of prejudice.

It should also be admitted that war-weariness after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has also led to a new birth of isolationism in our political culture. This dangerous mindset now acts as a drag on any effort to assert American power or influence abroad. Though rooted in an understandable and traditional suspicion of federal power (especially now that this power is in the hands of a president with little respect for constitutional rights), it has the potential to do great damage to America’s ability to defend its interests and its security abroad.

Those who understand the legacy of 9/11 and drew the proper conclusions from the mistakes that led to it do not advocate permanent war or the end of individual liberty in the name of security. But what they do know is that the war that 9/11 was but one battle of isn’t over. While Osama bin Laden is dead (as President Obama never tires of reminding us), al-Qaeda is alive. That was proved again in Benghazi as it was in the growth and newfound strength of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

While 9/11 memorials are fine, what we really need is a government that understands the threats from both terror groups and states (such as Iran) that remain a threat to the peace of the world. Like winning the equally frustrating and long Cold War, beating them requires more patience and endurance than democracies are likely to have. But beat them we must, and that means Americans must reject the siren song of isolationism while also not being fooled into thinking a 9/11 memorial is an excuse for an anti-terror strategy.

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Wrong on Paul? Christie Showed Leadership

Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

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Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

Noonan takes particular issue with Christie’s characterization of the libertarian critique of the NSA as well as drone attacks as “esoteric.” But she’s wrong that in doing so he’s ignoring the concerns that some Americans have with government abuse of power or particular instances in which the NSA may have misbehaved. To the contrary, it is Paul, Amash, and now Noonan who are behaving as if homeland security is an abstract concept that has little relevance to the lives of Americans. What he was trying to do was to refocus the party faithful on a fact that Noonan doesn’t see as particularly relevant. This is, after all, about the measures being employed by the government to defend the United States against an enemy that is, contrary to Barack Obama’s boasting and the complacence of the libertarians, very much still alive and determined to kill as many Americans as they can.

Rather than Christie seeking to manipulate our emotions by references to the families of 9/11 victims, it is Paul and others who have stoked paranoia about “Big Brother” government by posing theoretical arguments about drones killing citizens sitting in Starbucks or misleading Americans into thinking that the spooks are reading all of their emails or listening to all of their calls. Noonan plays the same game herself by trying to unnerve us by alluding to articles about the theoretical ability of super spies to use high-tech software to activate microphones on our phones and record our utterances.

No doubt there are people laboring away at the CIA and the NSA coming up with gadgets that James Bond would envy. But, like the guns that municipalities give police that could, if employed by rogues who run amok, be used to kill innocents, we understand that our security services are primarily focused on dealing with the bad guys. While no system is foolproof, if we cannot trust the existing structure of court jurisdiction and congressional oversight, then it is impossible to construct a rationale for any counter-terror operations or efforts to monitor our enemies.

There are dangers from new technologies and there is always a tension between civil liberties and security in a democracy. But the spirit of resistance to government action that Paul represents is far more lacking in balance than Christie’s apt if impatient dismissal of libertarian efforts to obstruct necessary measures to deal with al-Qaeda.

Noonan is right that polls show a growing number of Americans expressing concerns about the NSA and virtually any expression of government power. Given Obama’s overreach on virtually every issue and his inability to take responsibility for disasters like Benghazi, that is understandable. But what Paul is trying to do is to exploit this natural cynicism to fundamentally alter America’s foreign and defense policy. Noonan tries to spin this as an argument between the grass roots and the elites and the “moneymen” who hang out at the Aspen Institute where Christie spoke. That’s a nasty piece of invective that does little to enlighten the debate. That said, it is possible that a libertarian-fueled paranoia on national security efforts will dominate the GOP’s 2016 presidential race. Yet what the New Jersey governor was exhibiting was a quality that Noonan tends to praise in other circumstances: leadership.

What Republicans need right now is someone who isn’t afraid of confronting Paul and his crowd before they hijack a party that has been a bastion of support for a strong America since the Second World War. Jonah Goldberg is right when he noted today in the Los Angeles Times that the assumption that isolationism is a conservative tradition is incorrect. Isolationism has, as he points out, always been as much, if not more, at home on the left as it has ever been on the right. I, for one, didn’t expect Chris Christie to be one of the few Republicans who would have the guts to call out Paul and the libertarians and attempt to arrest the libertarian tide before it allows the Democrats to become the party with a natural edge on foreign and defense policy. Having done so, he deserves a lot better from those who pose as the conservative movement’s elders than he is currently getting.

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Snowden, Amash, and the Isolationist Peril

Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

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Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

The reaction to the NSA programs has been largely the function of complacency about terrorism borne of the successful American intelligence operations in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the notion that we can treat the war against Islamist terrorism as having already been won is a myth that both Obama and his libertarian opponents have helped foster. Paul and Amash represent a worldview that sees American counter-terror efforts, whether in terms of drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets or intelligence gathering, as happening in a vacuum that ignores the reality of ongoing efforts to attack the West. That is why they have sought to whip up hysteria about hypothetical drone attacks on Americans sitting in Starbucks, as Paul has done, and to treat a legal program conducted under judicial review and congressional oversight as the arrival of Big Brother totalitarianism.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of President Obama and his belief in untrammeled government power. But to the extent that he has continued many, if not most, of his predecessor’s efforts to defend Americans against terrorism, he deserves the support of conservatives who backed Bush for the same measures.

To refer to Snowden, who dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism intelligence, as a “whistle-blower” is to treat the war on Islamist terror as either fake or no longer being fought. In doing so, Amash has demonstrated how some on the right have, as Paul’s father often did, made common cause with left-wingers who think the world would be better off if America were booted off the global stage and retreated behind our borders. As I’ve noted previously, the left thinks America is always up to no good while their right-wing counterparts tend to act as if the country will only be safe if it seals itself off from the rest of the world. But as a practical matter, the two positions amount to the same thing.

This ought to have embarrassed Amash, but whether it did or not, it illustrates not only the problems that such an attitude creates for U.S. policy but the political implications of a Republican drift toward isolationism. If the GOP abandons its traditional posture as advocates for a strong defense and America maintaining its stature as a global power, then it renders itself vulnerable to the tides of war that may give the lie to both Obama’s boasts and Amash’s ostrich-like posture. This past weekend should give Republicans a glimpse of just how disastrous that would be.

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Paul Was Too Late on Egypt Aid

Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

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Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

In recent days, even the sternest critics of Obama’s foreign policy have held their fire on Egypt because it seems the administration has started to understand that its infatuation with the Brotherhood was a mistake that was deeply resented by the Egyptian people as well as destructive to American interests in the region. Rather than use the violence in the streets as the Brotherhood attempted to regain power in Cairo as an excuse for pressuring the military to restore Morsi, the U.S. is wisely sending a muted message about the unrest. That should give the new government the space it needs to hold on and ensure the Islamists don’t get another chance to remake Egyptian society in their own image. And it’s also why it’s exactly the wrong moment for Congress to send it a message that would be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a U.S. gesture intended to push Egypt back into the arms of the Brotherhood.

Fortunately, Paul’s amendment was tabled by a vote of 86-13 with the vast majority of Republicans voting with the majority. But this minor incident illustrates everything that is wrong with Paul’s ideological mindset.

Paul claims he is neither an isolationist nor someone who doesn’t wish to engage with the world. But his vision of engagement with the world is not consistent with America’s global responsibilities. Like it or not, American support is a necessary element of stability in much of the world, but especially in the Middle East. Paul is right that Egyptians may have resented U.S. aid for decades because it benefited the military rather than ordinary people. He failed to mention that one other reason they didn’t like it was because it was seen as an ongoing bribe to ensure that Egypt abided by its peace treaty with Israel. That resentment was even greater during the year of Brotherhood rule since it was seen as propping up a new dictatorship that was not only oppressive but also bent on imposing its theocratic views on all Egyptians.

That’s why Paul’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the U.S.-Egypt relationship just at the moment when President Obama was doing the right thing was so foolish. America’s priority there must be to keep the Brotherhood out of power. But Paul, who is indifferent or hostile to the need for the United States to keep fighting Islamist terrorists throughout the Middle East, has no patience for such nuances.

Moreover, despite his half-hearted attempts to demonstrate that he is not an opponent of Israel this past year, he also dismissed the idea that torpedoing Egyptian aid damages the Jewish state. An aid cutoff is the last thing Israel wants since doing so would help the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension strengthen the position of its Hamas allies in Gaza, who have been isolated since the coup. It would also undermine the peace treaty with Egypt that remains a pillar of Israel’s defense strategy. Claiming, as Paul did on the Senate floor, that he has a better grasp of what’s good for Israel or what its supporters are thinking than Israel’s government or AIPAC was absurd.

This morning’s vote was a minor skirmish in what looks to be a long and difficult struggle in Congress to keep the isolationist wing of the GOP from becoming the party’s voice on foreign policy. For now, Paul’s effort to distance the U.S. from its global responsibilities has failed. But, as with the effort to shut down necessary intelligence gathering or drone strikes against terrorists, the fight is far from over.

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Is Christie the Foreign Policy Candidate?

In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

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In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

Paul immediately fired back at Christie saying he’s against terror but only wants to preserve the Constitution. But he’s made it clear that what he wants is a massive pullback of efforts to seek out and fight Islamist terrorists as well as a general retreat from America’s position as a global power with commensurate responsibilities. Paul has tried to call this stance “realism,” but stripped of its rhetorical trappings that attempt to differentiate his positions from those of his crackpot father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, it is merely warmed-over isolationism. Paul has sought to play upon the war-weariness of Americans after Iraq and Afghanistan to bring this isolationist trend into the mainstream from the margins and fever swamps of the far right and far left, where it has dwelt since before World War II. And to judge by Wednesday’s House vote and his own poll ratings, he’s succeeding.

But as Christie pointed out, anyone who wants to cut back on the Bush/Obama anti-terror measures should come to New York or New Jersey and meet the families of 9/11 victims. Programs such as the NSA metadata mining have helped stop numerous attempts to repeat that atrocity. As Rep. Tom Cotton pointed out on the floor of the House on Wednesday, America is still at war and Republicans who ignore this fact are doing the country as well as their party a grave disservice.

The notion that most grass roots Republicans want the GOP to become the anti-war or the anti-anti-terror party is a fiction. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another member of the panel on which Christie spoke as well as another possible presidential candidate, pointed out, the attempt to transform the Republican Party in this manner is largely the function of “a few loud and vocal people talking in Washington and I don’t think that necessarily reflects where the party is.”

Walker is not only right about that, but his willingness to state this fact should stand as a rebuke to those pundits and politicians who have assumed that all Tea Party supporters are natural allies of Paul and the libertarians. The Republican base believes in limited government and opposes President Obama’s massive expansion of the federal leviathan. But it is not a bastion of isolationism and paranoia about national defense efforts. Most Republicans are capable of making a distinction between the need to cut back on unnecessary governmental intrusions into the public sector and the all-too-necessary responsibility of Washington to provide for the national defense.

Rand Paul may have thought his path to the presidential nomination had no serious obstacles on the foreign policy front, as so many in the top ranks of the GOP leadership seemed to fear to take him on after seeing the way Republicans cheered his filibuster on drone attacks last February. But Chris Christie’s comments as well as those of Scott Walker show that any such confidence is misplaced. It’s a long way until 2016 and there’s no telling who will turn out to be Paul’s chief antagonist on foreign policy. But whoever it turns out to be, the assumption that the libertarians will have the advantage may turn out to be a fallacy. 

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Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?

For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.

Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.

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For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.

Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.

As Eli Lake writes today in the Daily Beast, the coming civil war among Republicans over foreign policy will putt two traditional rival camps — the neoconservatives and the so-called “realists” — on the same side against what could be a rising tide of Rand Paul supporters who believe their small government credo ought to mandate massive defense cutbacks as well as the withdrawal of America from its place on the world stage.

Up until now, this wasn’t much of a contest because although Ron Paul could get throngs of his youthful libertarian crowd to applaud his absurd rationalizations of rogue regimes, such as Iran, or his belief that American imperialism helped generate anti-American terrorism, most Republicans weren’t buying it. But with a leader who doesn’t come across like everybody’s crazy uncle, the libertarian faction has reasonable hopes of doing much better. It’s not outlandish to believe, as Bill Kristol said on Fox News on Wednesday, that Rand Paul is likely to be a first-tier presidential candidate in the 2016 Republican primaries. If so, and I think he may be right, then there will be no question that it will call into question the assumption that there is wall-to-wall backing for Israel in the GOP.

To say that is not to jump to the conclusion that the younger Paul is an odds-on favorite to win the next Republican presidential nomination or that his views reflect those of the majority of Republicans. I think the chances of Paul ever being nominated are slim to none and that is in no small measure due to the fact that his embrace of his father’s foreign policy views — albeit expressed by the Kentucky senator in terms that are more subtle and less likely to be viewed as crackpot theories — will cripple any hope of ever capturing the party leadership.

Some Tea Party activists, like the staffer for Freedom Works who was quoted by Eli Lake as worrying about the possibility that a budget deal would avoid crippling defense cuts, believe their small government ideology requires a complete retrenchment of American defense and foreign policy. While some in the grassroots may share those sentiments, there is every reason to believe that the majority of those who identify with the movement also have traditional conservative views about the importance of American military power. Many also believe it vital that the U.S. maintain its alliance with the only true democracy in the Middle East: Israel.

The idea that the Republican Party will go back to its pre-World War Two embrace of isolationism is based on an imperfect understanding of the party’s base and its core beliefs. To argue, as some on the both the left and the right may, that there is a contradiction between believing in small government on domestic affairs but supporting a strong military, is to ignore that the requirement to “provide for the common defense” of the nation is enshrined in the Constitution that Tea Partiers revere.

Nevertheless, Rand Paul will be far more of a force in the Republican Party in the coming years than his father ever was. That’s a problem for conservatives who hope the GOP remains a bulwark of common sense about national defense and foreign policy. It will also mean that one of the party’s most prominent spokesmen will not be someone who will be viewed as reliably pro-Israel.

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Rubio Blasts Republican Isolationists

Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

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Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

The far-left and far-right don’t just agree on the embrace of American decline, but also on the other problematic attitudes that tend to go along with isolationism and non-interventionism, including antipathy toward Israel and indifference to human rights in other countries. As a young senator elected with Tea Party support, Rubio is in a prime position to rebut creeping isolationism/non-interventionism among the conservative grassroots.

Rubio gave a broad outline of his vision for U.S. foreign policy, which is heavily influenced by Robert Kagan’s arguments on the myth of American decline (Kagan has also advised Romney on foreign policy). Rubio spoke passionately about human rights and called the spread of political and economic freedom across the world “a vital interest” for the U.S. He acknowledged that working in coalitions with other countries is often helpful, but added that these coalitions are most successful when the U.S. takes the lead. And he argued that if military action needs to be used against Iran, then Israel shouldn’t be left to shoulder the burden on its own.

Still, this is a speech that Rubio could have delayed for a few months. The fact that he decided to give it today, at the height of speculation over his possible VP nod, seems to indicate that he’s either interested in the job, or just wants to give the impression that he is.

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